We all know that Google has been frantically trying to improve the validity and value of its search results through a sequence of recent ‘Updates’ including Panda and Penguin. We also know that Google includes elements of semantic search in its algorithms.
What very few people discuss is how the physical practice of making an online search could be improved. Given that search engines are beginning to understand the meaning of text on website pages when its ‘bots do a crawl, it’s logical to ask whether keywords are really up to the job of best interpreting and reflecting the semantic possibilities?
This article is intended as a discussion point only. In no way does it set out to prove a point or claim any great revelation. A lot of academic work has been done on search methodologies – including semantic search – so there’s nothing new under the sun (as they say!). The search engines themselves are continually claiming breakthroughs in this field, with more accurate search results being their ultimate aim.
One perspective they do not and cannot bring to the table is that of a coal-face creative in the shape of a website or SEO copywriter. Having been involved in website and SEO copywriting for a number of years, I’ve witnessed the rise and fall in the importance of keywords and the ways in which they have been aggrandized and devalued in turn.
At a practical level, I’ve never heard what mainstream or online marketing professionals think about the current keyword search system. While it’s true that keywords have been demoted in the SEO stakes (even to the extent that they’re now seemingly surplus to requirements in the meta data stakes!), they’re so much part of the status quo created by Google and the other search engines, it would almost be blasphemy to assume there could possibly be ‘any other way’!
Frankly my dear…
The structures of algorithms and the complexities of semantic search methodologies are beyond the day-to-day concerns of most marketing people. In other words my dears: they couldn’t give-a-damn! Copywriters may wonder occasionally what’s happening in the world of search when clients demand world-shattering SEO copywriting – but arguing the case for virtually anything in this field is often about invoking wisdom at the level of Chinese whispers!
If Google is looking to reward quality content that’s devoid of the opportunities for SEO trickery that keywords can provide, it surely needs to go beyond the keywords concept? Currently, the meaning of a post-Penguin web page will often be signposted by various headline <h> tags posted throughout the page. This will obviously work and convey meaning, but does it fall short in producing the best possible search results when sophisticated semantic and lexical analytical techniques are available?
It occurred to me that extending the use of keywords as the building blocks of search to something broader and more conceptual may bring benefits in the shape of more rounded, three-dimensional search results that don’t simply rely on the two-dimensional effect of keywords.
In other words, if ‘key-themes’ or copy extracts were used in place of keywords, the search engines would automatically have a more accurate idea of what the online searcher was looking for.
At a stroke, key-themes side-step what is known technically as ‘disambiguation’ by providing a context for all relevant keywords included in the search ‘theme.’ Key-themes also provide an organizational framework for the ideas implicit in the search – and yet, within the search will also be a contextual guide in the shape of our old friend, the keyword.
Keys to the Future
If the essence of current SEO practice is now largely focused on link-building and quality content, key-themes would help to improve the search process by taking this one step further. Key-themes have the huge benefit of combining flexibility with organizational convenience. The themes themselves provide a framework for organizing search ideas into subject areas (much in the way a library does).
Keywords within the search theme then provide a complementary capability that will enable searchers to drill down to discover more detail in the results. In this way, the theme is acting as a first-stage filter, while the keywords maximize the detailed benefits and relevance that the theme in its paradoxical generality has already identified.
So what will the future hold for website copywriting and SEO in this new semantic landscape? The answer probably lies in another question relating to what Google expects to achieve with its further updates, of which there will very likely be many.
Since ‘Penguin’, the way is now wide open to a fresher, keyword-free form of writing. If we take this to its logical conclusion one or two years from now, could we expect web content to be written in a totally freestyle way? If so, in a world where keywords are thin on the ground, there will surely have to be another way for search engines to evaluate copy – and for searchers to find what they’re looking for.
Semantic analysis could easily emerge as the search engines’ savior, but true ‘meaning’ in the text will have to be extracted from general ‘themes,’ and not from highly specific keywords which will only have significance when viewed in semantic context.
The benefits of this for searchers will be that web pages written with key-themes in mind will be clear and relevant to their searches. Results will throw up pages of greater relevance because ‘real’ meaning on the SERPs pages will match more closely those themes sought by the searcher.
Significantly, key-themes are less open to SEO manipulation and will very probably lead to better quality, themed web pages that will take Google ever-closer to the online Eldorado where robots rule – and people are eternally grateful.
Mike Beeson is a UK freelance copywriter, journalist and PR consultant specializing in website and SEO copywriting. Mike’s company, Buzzwords Limited, was established over 20 years ago and is located in Knutsford, Cheshire (south Manchester).